This weekend’s GP in Detroit has a bit of an unusual format—it’s a team event, but unlike the Team Trios we saw at PT 25th Anniversary, the format this time is Team Unified Modern. A “unified” format means that as soon as one of the three decks played by the team contains a copy of a card, no other decks on that team can also play that card (apart from basic lands).
For example, if you’re playing Ancient Stirrings in your Hardened Steel deck, then it’s not possible for your friend playing Tron to also run Stirrings. Why you’re friends with someone playing Tron is another matter entirely, but that falls outside the purview of this article.
Typically, Unified Modern sees decks “clump” into distinct categories, defined by key cards, and from each of these “clumps” you can pick a single deck. For example, in the past, Ancient Stirrings, Lightning Bolt, and Thoughtseize have all been cards around which decks tend to converge, forcing teams to make decisions accordingly. Do you want to play Burn or Jund? Grixis Shadow or Mardu Pyromancer? All of these decks need Lightning Bolt, so which will it be?
Historically, this tension between deck choice led to a clear pattern—one “colorless” deck, be it Tron, Affinity, or Eldrazi, and two decks that split the fetchlands and shocklands. For example, it was possible to play Affinity, Abzan, and Storm with essentially no meaningful overlap.
Right now, however, the Modern format is in a completely different position than what we’ve seen in the past. As a result, we’re going to see vastly different deck configurations in Detroit.
The Three Clumps
Given the diversity of the Modern format and the nature of the decks that contribute to this diversity, there is going to be a much wider scope of viable configurations this weekend. There are three “clumps” that can be clearly identified, and given the power level of the decks within these clumps, I’m fairly certain that we won’t see people divert too far away from this model.
The three clumps are based around:
As usual, the Ancient Stirrings decks have hardly any overlap with the rest of the format, but the deck that really messes up the orthodoxy of Unified Modern is 5-Color Humans. Stock Humans lists have next to no overlap with any other top-tier Modern list, meaning that it’s now possible to play two distinct decks that don’t tread on the toes of the others.
The larger consequence of this? It means that there is no need to squabble over fetchlands and shocklands, and that the third player on the team can more or less play anything they like. So long as you have someone playing Humans and someone playing Ancient Stirrings, essentially any fetch/shock deck is going to be fair game.
There are a few respectable choices when deciding upon your Ancient Stirrings deck, as well as one highly unrespectable choice. The scourge of Modern— Tron—has virtually no overlap with any other non-Stirrings deck, which is par for the course. KCI is in a similar position, as other decks aren’t exactly fighting to play copies of Myr Retriever.
My pick for this slot, however, is the latest craze among colorless mages: Hardened Steel. This relative newcomer to the format won the most recent Modern GP, in Prague, and I anticipate that it will continue to make its presence felt this weekend. Especially since, as mentioned, it isn’t draining key cards from other decks.
Lauri Pispa, 1st place at GP Prague 2018
No non-Stirrings deck requires a single one of the main deck cards (apart from Walking Ballista in Company and Horizon Canopy in Humans) and the sideboard cards are flexible enough to work around (Surgical Extraction and Damping Sphere have appropriate substitutes). Consequently, it’s reasonable to expect this deck to have a big presence in Detroit. Hardened Steel put on an incredibly convincing performance in Prague, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it heavily represented at the top tables this weekend.
Another Ancient Stirrings deck—one that’s slightly further from the beaten path—is Amulet Titan. I featured this deck in last week’s article after its powerful (and hilarious) performance on Sunday morning in Prague, and happily it has a low overlap with other non-Stirrings decks. It’s certainly a deck to keep in mind!
One of the most popular and successful decks in recent memory, 5-Color Humans is almost certainly the default pick for this slot. Powerful, consistent, and disruptive, this aggro deck has been a mainstay of Modern since the printing of Ixalan. That’s not going to change this weekend, especially as the deck is so conducive to Unified Modern.
What other decks may tempt people away from Humans? The prime candidate for that dubious honor is Bant Spirits. Another up-and-comer, Bant Spirits, took two of GP Prague’s Top 8 slots, offering an interactive and usually instant-speed game plan that is still bamboozling those less acquainted with this newer piece of technology.
Ondrej Strasky, 3rd at GP Prague 2018
There’s a very real problem, however. Bant Spirits gets some major knocks against it when it comes to Unified Modern.
Firstly, it’s a fetch/shock deck. If you play Bant Spirits, your team can no longer play Hallowed Fountain decks like White-Blue or Jeskai Control, or Temple Garden decks like Company or Bogles (not to mention that these decks all want to play Path to Exile as well, which incidentally knocks out Burn as well).
Additionally, its need for powerful white sideboard cards also eats into the sideboards of other available decks. Stony Silence and Rest in Peace are more or less the best sideboard cards in the format, meaning that any other potential white deck you might be considering for the third slot is going to be considerably powered-down. Humans, on the other hand, isn’t really fighting with any other deck when it comes to building its creature-based sideboard.
Infect is another potential option, as is Collected Company, but neither of these decks can come close to Humans on raw power level. Infect never really recovered from Gitaxian Probe being banned, and Company decks—while great on paper—have never quite gotten across the line. For these reasons, it seems like Humans is the closest thing you can have to a lock in your Unified Modern lineup.
Assuming that your team is playing an Ancient Stirrings deck alongside 5-Color Humans, that means the third slot is essentially a freeroll. It goes without saying that I’d be playing White-Blue Control, but there are any number of other perfectly defensible choices. Burn, Grixis Shadow, Jund, even Hollow One —none of theoe decks have any meaningful overlap with Humans or any Ancient Stirrings deck.
Given that we’re expecting a ton of Humans and a fair bit of Hardened Steel, White-Blue Control is—objectively—a great pick for the weekend. But if there’s also a lot of Tron in the Ancient Stirrings seat, that muddies the waters a little bit. White-Blue isn’t great against Tron in game 1, so to meaningfully contest the turn 3 Karn, ensure that your sideboard has the tools for the job.
This list is specifically tuned for the expected field in Detroit. In particular, the board. Three Stony Silence and two Ceremonious Rejection against the Ancient Stirrings decks, and three Damping Sphere for Tron (the Spheres are also great against KCI and Storm, which people will gravitate towards if they’re in fear of Tron).
The main deck beats up on creature decks, but a smart White-Blue Control player should beat Tron across three games, no worries. They have so few meaningful threats—Karn and Ulamog, principally—with Path to Exile cleaning up everything else. You have a bunch of powerful planeswalkers they can’t interact with, and four copies of Field of Ruin. As long as you’re intelligent with your countermagic, it’s fairly academic to grind out the win.
GP Detroit promises to be unlike previous Unified Modern tournaments, due to the presence of powerful colorless decks, in addition to Humans as one of Modern’s premier decks. We may see a more streamlined or homogeneous Unified format than we’re used to, but hey—it’s still Modern, and it’s still going to rule!